Sunday, September 4, 2011

Clinton Gets Cold Reception in Pakistan

Sunday, September 4, 2011
[CLINTON]Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen at a news conference at the U.S. embassy after meeting with Pakistani leaders and military officials Friday.

ISLAMABAD—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beseeched Pakistan to take "decisive steps" against Islamist militants in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, at what she called a turning point for the fraying alliance's effort to fight terrorism and bring stability to Afghanistan.

But her message was greeted coolly in a country that was angered by the bin Laden raid and sees itself as stretched to the limit in fighting extremists that have sown terror within Pakistan.

Officials on both sides say relations are at the lowest point since before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The visit laid bare the growing divergence between the allies, who share the broader goal of countering Islamist militancy and stabilizing Afghanistan, but often differ on who and what groups constitute an enemy.

Mrs. Clinton was joined in a tense, daylong sweep through Islamabad by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The two were the most senior American officials to visit the country since the May 2 U.S. raid that killed bin Laden and set off a wave of Pakistani anger at the U.S.

The dispatching of such a high-level duo signaled the importance placed by Washington on repairing the relationship in order to help sustain the momentum from bin Laden's death. Both officials praised Pakistan's efforts and noted the sacrifices it has made, losing thousands of its own civilians to terrorist attacks in recent years.

But the tension was clear at the start of the first meeting of the day, with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. There were few of the smiles and warm handshakes that usually open such sitdowns, and reporters were soon shooed out of the room.

President Zardari's office said the two sides agreed to work together against "high-value targets in Pakistan," and to promote peace in Afghanistan.

A senior Pakistani official with knowledge of the talks described them as "better than not talking."

Mrs. Clinton and Adm. Mullen also met military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who in practice wields more power than Pakistan's elected leaders. The chief of Pakistan's main spy agency, Lt. Gen. Shuja Ahmad Pasha, attended.

U.S. officials accuse the spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, of aiding the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups to maintain Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan and for use against rival India. Pakistani officials insist they have cut their ties with militant groups.

Both Mrs. Clinton and Adm. Mullen were blunt in their comments to reporters after the meetings, appearing at the American Embassy without any Pakistani officials. Adm. Mullen described the talks as "candid."

"We have reached a turning point. Osama bin Laden is dead but al Qaeda and its syndicate of terror remain a threat to us both," Mrs. Clinton said. "We both recognize that there is still much more work required and it is urgent."

American officials say their priority now is to work with Islamabad to see more aggressive action taken against the Pakistan-based militant groups that are destabilizing Afghanistan.

Mrs. Clinton said Pakistan had agreed to take "some very specific actions" on its own and with the U.S. in the coming days. She didn't provide details.

A senior U.S. official involved in Mrs. Clinton's outreach effort said the trip was constructive, and that Pakistan has already delivered on some of the things that the U.S. has asked for since bin Laden's death—including granting the Central Intelligence Agency access on Friday to his compound in Abbottabad to scour for clues.

But the proof will come in Pakistani action, the official said. "You might see a lot of activity by the Pakistanis, but it's unclear if that will lead to serious operations."

There is little disagreement between the U.S. and Pakistan on the threat posed by al Qaeda. But Islamabad says it is focusing out of necessity on fighting the Pakistan Taliban, which has launched a series of bloody revenge attacks in Pakistan in the weeks since the al Qaeda leader's death.

With those attacks Pakistan has also faced almost all of the fallout from the bin Laden raid. The latest came Thursday when a suicide bomber detonated a pickup truck laden with explosives near government offices in northwest Pakistan, killing at least 32 people.

Mrs. Clinton noted the attacks and praised what she called Pakistan's "tremendous" commitment to battling militancy. She also stressed that Washington doesn't suspect senior Pakistani officials knew of bin Laden's presence in Pakistan, and that Pakistan's leaders were also eager to find if any of their people helped shield him.

Mrs. Clinton said the U.S. and Pakistan were working together to "untangle the puzzle of bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad," the garrison town a few hours from Islamabad where bin Laden lived and died.

Some U.S. lawmakers are calling for the halt of billions of dollars of U.S. security and economic assistance to Pakistan, due to concerns that elements within Pakistan's military and spy service may have played a role in harboring bin Laden.

The raid that killed bin Laden, launched without Pakistan's knowledge, was widely viewed here as a violation of the country's sovereignty, and suggestions from U.S. officials that bin Laden may have been shielded by Pakistani soldiers or spies have only deepened the resentment.

Pakistani officials have indignantly denied bin Laden was given safe harbor. They point out that their security forces have captured many senior al Qaeda leaders and a third of Pakistan's army is deployed in the country's northwest to fight the Pakistan Taliban, an offshoot of the Afghan insurgency.

A series of bloody offensives against the Taliban in the past two years have left nearly 3,000 Pakistani soldiers dead. Even some U.S. officials acknowledge that Pakistan is militarily stretched to the limit, and it is unrealistic to expect fresh offensives against militant havens in the near future.

The senior Pakistani official said Washington needed to fully understand "the ground realities" in Pakistan, where anti-Americanism is rife. "We have to be mindful of what our people want when we consider what we can do," the official said.

"You can't disregard public opinion," the official said. "You have to carry part of that in your policy."

Mrs. Clinton took a swipe at the conspiracy theories that permeate mainstream discourse in Pakistan. The U.S. is often painted here as a rapacious friend in league with India and Israel and aiming to deprive Pakistan of its cherished nuclear weapons. Other nations, such as Saudi Arabia and China, are portrayed as more loyal friends of Pakistan.

"I think we have some work ahead to try to do a better job to just tell the truth about what we are working on together…I mean, we provide more support than Saudi Arabia, China, and everybody else combined," Mrs. Clinton said.

"Pakistan should understand that anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make problems disappear," she added.

Mrs. Clinton's trip had been kept secret for security reasons and lasted less than a day. The mission has been in the planning stage for more than two weeks, according to U.S. officials. But the Obama administration wanted to make sure that the visit would result in specific advances in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The State Department's top official on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, and Mike Morrel, the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, visited Islamabad last week to pave the way for Mrs. Clinton.

Messrs. Grossman and Morrel specifically asked that U.S. personnel be allowed to visit the compound where bin Laden lived. That visit took place Friday, Pakistani officials said.

—Jay Solomon in Washington contributed to this article.

Write to Matthew Rosenberg at

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